Unless US DOT Changes Course, Building Protected Bikeways May Get Tougher

Seattle, Washington.

pfb logo 100x22Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities connect high-comfort biking networks.

“Hey, how long does it take you to get to work?”

“Well, on average my car is usually traveling at 36 mph.”

No actual human makes transportation decisions this way. But for some reason, the federal government has proposed evaluating highway congestion based entirely on the speed of cars — while ignoring how far or how long people have to drive or ride to get where they’re going.

It’s a system that’d reward states for spending billions to extend freeways to sprawling exurbs, transportation reformers warn, but penalize communities that make their streets more space-efficient.

“Let’s say your [road’s average speed is] going from 40 mph to 30 mph,” said Katy Hartnett, director of government relations at PeopleForBikes, in an interview. “Maybe at 30 mph you’re actually moving more people through, because you’ve put a bus on it, or a bike lane.”

For the White Flint neighborhood of Montgomery County, Maryland, that’s exactly the risk. The county has a long-term plan to run a bus rapid transit line and protected bike lanes up Rockville Pike, greatly improving access to the White Flint Metro Station. Old Georgetown Road would also get protected bike lanes, helping form a connected bike-and-transit network that could combine to create convenient alternatives to rush-hour traffic in this redeveloping suburban area.

“Montgomery County, it’s growing quickly,” said Garrett Hennigan of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “Over the past five years there’s really been a change in focus and a change in thinking in how we should plan around the bike.”

But the federal rules as currently proposed might penalize Montgomery County for trying to get ahead of its congestion problem. That’s because Rockville Pike and Old Georgetown Road are both classified as “principal arterials,” which makes them part of the Federal Highway System, which means any slowdown in auto traffic would raise bureaucratic red flags — even if the actual result would be to help more Marylanders escape congestion.

Rule could make it harder to build protected bike lanes

The planned biking network around White Flint in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Look around the country and you’ll see many cities trying to cut congestion while improving public health and equity by adding protected bike lanes to “principal arterials.” Here are a few:

The proposed federal rule wouldn’t make projects like these illegal. It’d just make them look bad on spreadsheets, even if in the real world they’re improving the average commute.

“This is how the discussion over congestion will be framed,” said Stephen Davis, spokesman for the mobility advocacy group Transportation for America. “Everybody who writes about it, everybody who covers it, every time there’s a community meeting about a project, somebody will be able to say, ‘well, this project will mean that if we add our protected bike lanes, then we won’t make our targets.'”

Over time, Davis said, treating automotive speed as the top priority can starve a city or a business district of its most precious resource: how much people want to be there.

“A local community says, ‘Well hey, that doesn’t actually jibe with our goals — we’re trying to turn this into an enjoyable downtown main street and you’re trying to turn this into a speeding highway,'” Davis said.

That’s too bad, the proposed rules would say.

Smarter rule still possible

Allen and Pike Streets, New York. Photo: NYCDOT.

There’s still a chance to amend or block these rules, Davis and Hartnett said. Ideally, congestion would measure people rather than machines.

But people can, admittedly, be difficult to measure. So Davis and Hartnett both suggested that a smarter federal rule would also give road projects credit for the auto trips they prevent.

They hope this would be a way to start changing the assignment that the United States has given its thousands of transportation engineers.

It would no longer have engineers ask only “How can we make cars move faster?” It’d ask them to put their brains toward another problem: “How can we get people where they want to go?”

“This is important because it sets the norms,” Davis said.

To send your comments to the Federal Highway Administration, click here.

The next phase of the Green Lane Project is the Big Jump Project, which will select 10 very different neighborhoods and districts and help them quickly connect biking networks. Find out how your city can apply here.


    Congress passed a law in 2005 (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, or MAP-21) that establishes national goals for all parts of the transportation system funded with federal dollars. One of those goals statements is: “To achieve a significant reduction in congestion on the National Highway System.” The words “significant reduction in congestion” have influenced the regulations and performance measures proposed by FHWA, and their hands are tied unless and until Congress amends the law.

    I agree with the sentiments expressed in this article, but there’s not much flexibility in the interpretation of the law in this case, and we’re stuck with the potential for years or decades of misguided investments. One potential solution is to convince state DOTs to redesignate urban streets so they are no longer Principal Arterials, where possible (so that they would not have to be automatically included as part of the National Highway System).

  • carfreecommuter

    I believe you mean Dearborn not Desplaines for Chicago. (Desplaines is southbound only)

  • J Wake

    Some cyclists don’t agree with the “protected bike lane as panacea” movement.

  • Kevin Love

    Some designs are pure crap. But proper Dutch designs really are panaceas. For an example, see this video of Jodenbreestraat in Amsterdam.


  • Generally those cyclists haven’t seen a well designed protected bike lane. Or are acting irrationally.

  • Vooch

    depends entirely on precise definition of “congestion” 🙂

  • J Wake

    I’ve seen lots of well-designed protected bike lanes. They’re trivial – normally between intersections and where there are no drive-outs. Unfortunately they look very much like sidewalks or parking/delivery zones, and are often treated that way.

    What I’ve seen very few of in the US are well-designed intersections that these bike lanes “skip over”. That is, they are not protected from turning motor traffic inside the intersection. The “dutch solution” requires motorists to adhere to slow speed limits and yield to cyclists, which is a political hot-potato and isn’t going to happen in the US anytime soon. Timed, mode-specific traffic lights are a traffic-flow disaster in busy intersections and will not scale to any degree.

  • Vincent Walter

    I road bicycle thousands of miles in the 1980’s and 1990’s with nary an issue. Back then “flow riders” weren’t the norm. I’ve seen “critical mass” riders parade by the two or three dozen through red lights… nice PR critical massers! Most sane cyclist stopped or nearly stopped at signs and red lights, got in turn lanes, made lefts on green etc. Today distracted drivers are a menace, and cyclist that run reds, left on red, don’t even slow for stop signs, piss off so many drivers that while I’m stopped waiting for red lights (on my old Fiorelli), red necks abuse me with abusive language and tell me to “ride your toy on the sidewalk”. Anymore I feel like Apple and the dawn of the smartphone has turned my activity of ridding country roads and city streets into a “half hearted attempt at suicide.” Oh yah, “green stop boxes” “sharrows” confuse and infiriate car drivers, most of the high traffic roads with “Sharrows” are roads I would avoid or just ride way over on the right like I did all through the 1980’s and 1990’s without issue (except for the occasional right hand turn auto cutting me off).

  • The Dutch solution doesn’t require motorists to adhere, it designs roads to cause motorists to behave this way naturally. The yielding to cyclists is one difference, but drivers are already supposed to yield to pedestrians (not that they always or even often do).

    As for mode-specific traffic lights, traffic-flow disaster they are not, and they definitely scale up, the Netherlands is a very dense wealthy country, they do not lack traffic or cars, they have plenty of that, and yet traffic-flow there is if anything, better than the US.

    You are right though, it is a political hot potato, and to everyone’s detriment, nobody seems willing to actually do it right.

    But the point remains, cyclists who are opposed to segregated infrastructure are so, because they don’t see how it can be done right.

  • Miles Bader

    One great way to reduce congestion would be to (1) build a significantly better public transportation and (2) highly discourage driving, e.g. by increasing fees and taxes and removing public subsidies for cars like free curbside parking.

  • Thanks – I did mean Desplaines but “north-south” was bad word choice. I’ll change to “southbound.”

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Not true…

    “But the point remains, cyclists who are opposed to segregated infrastructure are so, because they don’t see how it can be done right.”

    Many of us are opposed to two things:

    1) We know what proper infrastructure looks like and are opposed to the stuff that gets built. The U.S. does not have the political will to do it right. Also, proper designs at times do not make cyclists “Feel” safer and are ignored.

    2) We are opposed to the laws that force us to use the substandard infrastructure. The fact that I need to carry laminated copies of the laws and exceptions and photos on my phone to show how unsafe the infrastructure is, is disgraceful.

    Current laws and infrastructure is no different than taking a modern articulating bus back in time to 1955 Montgomery, Alabama. Here, Ms Parks, is a nice modern bus with a special section just for you; to keep you safe from all the angry white bus riders who do not want you on the bus. Oh by the way, we are not changing the law, so you still have to sit in the back. It is for your safety.

  • To compare preventing cyclists from using certain infrastructure to Jim Crow era segregation is probably not a good idea.

    First, cyclists are already prohibited from using some infrastructure, just as pedestrians are. At least in Ontario, cyclists are not permitted to ride on any fully grade separated highways. Pedestrians are not allowed to walk along the carriageway of any road that has sidewalks on the side they are walking. None of these things has been equated to Jim Crow segregation.

    In the Netherlands, cyclists are prohibited on many roads because there is excellent adjacent cycling infrastructure. This never felt like a problem. Well designed infrastructure is far far more pleasant to use than a busy dangerous roadway.

    I entirely capitulate the point that what the US builds is often bad. But that is no reason to stop fighting to build something better. When it comes right down to it, segregated lanes are the ONLY way most people will “feel” safe riding. This is perfectly visible from frequency of sidewalk cycling. While it is statistically less safe and very uncomfortable, people do it anyway because they feel safe.

    To fight against segregated lanes because you don’t believe good ones will be built is to give up on the very idea of casual cycling, and to relegate cycling ONLY to those who have the steel resolve needed to ride on the roads.

    As for laws, I don’t believe anyone has proposed any such laws, and quite frankly, they don’t need to, in some places, cyclists get harassed by drivers and police alike for not following these imagined laws.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    You missed the point.

    Build all the crap you want. Just repeal the laws that force me to use it. Access to the public roads is a right in the United States. Use of a motor vehicle is a privilege. I for one am tired of laws being passed that limit my rights for another’s privilege. When I ride on a bus, I get to choose whether I sit in the front or the rear. When I operate a bicycle, I should be allowed to choose general travel lanes or bicycle infrastructure.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Here is an example of a road that was three lanes wide. Never had bicycle accidents. I may have rode on it close to 1,000 times – no issues. Now there is a bike lane.

    Why should I legally be forced to use this:

  • You aren’t legally forced to use it, so far as I understand, there are no laws that I know of forcing you to use it. If there are laws forcing the use of unsafe infrastructure, I don’t agree with them, and I made that very clear in my comment.

    That being said, I do agree with restricting the users on some roads, for example, pedestrians and cyclists should not be using controlled access expressways, because they’re not designed for their use, and to do so would be dangerous for all users. But of course, at least where I live, no expressway represents the only route into a location. And again the sidewalk example, is qualified, in both my statement, and the actual written law in Ontario, that the sidewalk must be present on the side one is walking on, i.e., it must be useful for the person.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Forty-four states have “Furthest to the Right as Practicable” laws. Laws simply in place to move out of the way of motorists.

    Of those forty-four states, nine (including my home state, California) have mandatory bike lane use laws. Of the remaining thirty-five, the bike lane law is implied via the FTR law.

    In addition, seven states have mandatory side-path laws.

    In order for me to ride outside of the bike lane, I have to prove that it was “reasonably necessary to leave the bicycle lane to avoid debris or other hazardous conditions.” Thus I need to carry a laminated card with the law and all the exceptions and photos on my phone.

    See, my issue with organizations such as People for Bikes is that they are solely focused on infrastructure while not advocating for our equality.

    As for me, there is one nearby street that has signals crossing arterials. Unfortunately it is a two-lane road. This forces drivers into opposing traffic to pass me, leading to harassment. Before the bike lane, I was able to ride up and down Fairfax Avenue in the left tire track of the third lane. No harassment and the only issue I had was a left hook close call. Now if I ride to the left of the bike lane, I will be harassed by motorists (get into the bike lane – or – the bike lane is over there) or I run the risk of getting a CVC 21208 violation. If I use the alternative, I will get harassment because motorists have to cross into opposing traffic to pass me. It’s not just California; Google Cherokee Schill and see how she was treated by the law and abandoned by the League of American Bicyclists.

    So it is not that we are against infrastructure, we are against the laws that make us second-class road users. These laws reinforce motorist’s superiority over cyclists. So yes, build the infrastructure; but at the same time lobby to repeal the bad laws.

  • What I’ve heard is that 44 states have “as far right as practicable” which is a perfectly reasonable law, and in no way compels you to use impractical or unsafe infrastructure. This in fact is no different from the law which is applied to motorists in most places as well, “keep right except to pass”. We also have this law in Ontario, and it has never been held to prevent taking the lane, and in fact our MTO’s guidance book recommends riding 1 meter out from the edge of the road, or in the middle of narrow lanes, and away from parked cars.

    Now, 9 states you cite may indeed require bike lane use, which I have repeatedly said I disagree with, and you should work to change those laws.

    The “problem” with People for Bikes is that they don’t concentrate on your personal issue, that isn’t a “problem” with them, it’s your problem with them. But not everyone will fight for the particular issue you feel most strongly about, but you should still support them, if they support the general idea you wish to promote, or at least not object to them. They advocate for something you presumably support, cycling, and wish to achieve it through better infrastructure (which you don’t seem to oppose) you should still support them, regardless of if they actively advocate for your preferred issue, they certainly don’t advocate against your issue, they simply ignore it.


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